Simply focusing on whether North Korea or Iran has or will soon have nuclear weapons risks missing the bigger picture: The international arrangement for controlling the spread of nukes is teetering on the brink of collapse.
Hope for restraining the spread of nuclear arms rests, for now, with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That pact was aimed at limiting the possession of nukes to those nations that had them at the time - Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union, and the US. Other countries could obtain nuclear technology for peaceful uses - subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure they weren't making nuclear byproducts (plutonium) into bombs. The nuclear powers, meanwhile, promised to work toward arms control and their own nuclear disarmament.
But it's clearer than ever that the treaty hasn't worked. India, Pakistan, South Africa, and Israel have all developed nuclear weapons (South Africa dismantled its program in the early '90s under President F.W. de Klerk). North Korea may have them. Iraq, Iran, and Libya have tried or are still trying to get them. The more countries that have this dangerous technology, the more likely it is that a weapon could fall into terrorists' hands.
The NPT has failed because too many countries won't support enforcement. "We spend too much time debating what I'd call 'architecture' - treaties, arrangements, etc. - and not enough time discussing how to put in place a strong commitment to action to back up those fine words on paper," John Wolf, the State Department's nonproliferation czar, told a Senate committee in March.
It doesn't help that while Russia and the US have greatly reduced their weapons stockpiles since the cold war ended, none of the five original nuclear-weapons states is talking seriously about abandoning its atomic bombs.
The 9/11 attacks brought home to the United States - in a way that most other countries have yet to grasp - that the it can no longer remain passive in its defense and just trust its security to the hope that others will behave. The Bush administration has announced a preemption doctrine in response. The US will not wait to be attacked by weapons of mass destruction from hostile actors: It will remove the threat by force.
Such a doctrine raises a host of questions, and many nations vociferously object to it. Several of the loudest complainers - France and Russia come to mind - are countries that have obstructed efforts to halt proliferation or have sold nuclear technology to questionable buyers.
The nuclear ball is now in the international community's court. If the nations of the world wish to convince the US to abandon a preemption doctrine for reliance on international law, they must come up with a tough agreement that will reverse the spread of nuclear weapons, walk back those countries that have developed them despite the NPT, institute no-exceptions inspections, and impose harsh sanctions on violators.
The danger is now. The time for shilly-shallying has ended.